Lansdale Catholic wins first PCL title in a 50-47 victory vs. Archbishop Wood - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
Photos/Videos: Donna Eckert, Rich Flanagan & John Knebels
By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA - Along its steep climb to the Philadelphia Catholic League girls’ basketball mountaintop, Lansdale Catholic broke a few bones, tore some tendons, sprained numerous ankles, skinned countless knees, and discarded thousands of tear-soaked tissues.
But the program never lost its compass.
On Monday night at the Palestra, the Crusaders exorcised all previous pain, angst, and grief. For the first time since joining the league before the 2008-09 season, Lansdale Catholic corralled the PCL crown with an extremely memorable 50-47 victory over a stubborn Archbishop Wood team that came oh-so-close to completing one of the greatest comebacks in PCL playoff history.
“We took a really big knockout punch from a really good team,” said Lansdale Catholic coach Eric Gidney, “and to come back with that sort of composure and hit shot after shot and get back to our game plan was just amazing.”
Citing her mindset early in her scholastic career, senior standout Gabby Casey said she “would not have believed a single word they said” if someone had predicted such an amazingly quick turnaround.
Casey’s freshman season ended with an 81-45 loss to Archbishop Wood in the playoff quarterfinals, followed by a beyond excruciating campaign as a sophomore during which the Crusaders finished 0-11 in the PCL Red Division with an average loss of 58-36.
Last year, however, Lansdale Catholic established itself as an upcoming legitimate threat to PCL’s traditionally successful programs. After a 7-3 regular season, the Crusaders placed fourth and hosted Neumann-Goretti in the quarterfinal, losing 66-52.
They ultimately reached the PIAA Class 4A state championship, losing to Archbishop Wood by a more than acceptable 57-45.
Coming into this year, Lansdale Catholic garnered widespread mention as a true contender. The Crusaders dropped a 53-51 decision to visiting PCL defending champion Cardinal O’Hara on February 2, but deep early foul trouble could be blamed on a loss that almost reached overtime before a last-second, game-tying layup by Casey was negated by an offensive charge. Five nights later, a stunning 49-31 win at Archbishop Wood emphatically answered all doubters.
Indeed, championships supply a potent elixir that renders past disillusionment null and void. Regardless of how far Lansdale Catholic, which easily skipped past Audenried, 85-55, in last night’s District 12 championship behind a career-best-tying 40 points by Casey, advances in the PIAA tournament, the Crusaders can always turn to their PCL crown whenever in need of solace.
Senior and SJU Hawk's commit Gabby Casey celebrates after winning LC's first PCL title - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
Numerous vivid moments punctuated one of the most enjoyable PCL seasons in memory.
Sophomore Nadia Yemola displayed a “Pressure? What pressure?” countenance when she opened the scoring by drilling a three-pointer.
Known mostly for her defense, Yemola would finish with five points and, more importantly, made goings difficult for Wood’s offense.
“That’s what I focus on,” said Yemola. “I lock up on defense and look for a shot when I can. I try to make the smart play . . . the smart pass.”
After arriving at the Palestra at about 4:15 for a 6:00 start, Yemola and her admittedly nervous teammates took their time embracing the unique experience, snapping pictures and noticing the many nuances of one of the country’s most historic arenas.
About 45 minutes later, as soon as the Palestra’s wide, brown doors opened, Lansdale Catholic’s student section entered and immediately started to whoop up a game-long frenzy.
“We have great fans,” said Yemola. “Our fan section made it so much fun.”
Casey, the PCL Most Valuable Player who next year will play at St. Joseph’s University, concurred.
“The LC community is amazing,” said Casey, who scored 15 points and added five rebounds. “They drive an hour for a game and show up an hour before, and as soon as they get there, they are rowdy. It’s great for us. It’s great momentum. That sparks us to come out with our ‘A’ game and come out with intensity and energy.”
After Wood rode an outstanding performance by senior Kara Meredith (game-high 19 points, five three-pointers) and turned a seemingly insurmountable second-quarter deficit of 24-8 into a 44-37 lead in the fourth quarter, Casey nailed a three-pointer. Senior teammate Jaida Helm (12 points, seven rebounds) followed with another trey.
Wood senior Delaney Finnegan answered with a layup to increase Wood’s lead to 46-43. Two free throws by soon-to-be-heroine junior Olivia Boccella made it 46-45. After a free throw by Wood junior Ava Renninger (outstanding effort with 11 points, four rebounds, two steals, assist), Helm tied the game at 47-47 on a driving layup with 1:14 on the clock.
The Crusaders then took possession and appeared content for a final shot. After copious team dribbling, Casey drew a defender and passed to Boccella.
Without hesitation, and utilizing the same perfect form as she had displayed in her previous three-pointers, Boccella lofted an ultra high three-point release that splashed the twine with 18 seconds remaining in regulation.
After Wood called timeout, the second-team All-Catholic Boccella, who should be nicknamed “Clutch” for her penchant to hit must makes, sprinted to the sideline as teammates mashed her with pushes, hugs, and high fives.
“That was one of the most memorable moments of my life for sure,” said Boccella, who tallied a team-high 17 points. “Nothing was going through my mind. That was the most incredible feeling ever. I don’t have any words. It’s everything I ever dreamed of.”
OLIVIA BOCCELLA for the lead! @lcladycrusaders leads, 50-47 and @WoodGirlsBball calls timeout. @Wood_Vikings will have the ball with 11.7 seconds left pic.twitter.com/THBJwKrW58— Philadelphia Sports Digest (@PhSportsDigest) February 28, 2023
A last gasp three-point try by Wood senior Deja Evans (10 points, eight rebounds, block) came tantalizingly close to forcing overtime, but the attempt entered and exited the basket, and Lansdale Catholic officially became the 14th different school – and 11th since 1967 – to capture a PCL girls’ basketball championship.
“Wood is a great team with great coach, and when they hit their shots, it’s tough to stop,” said Casey. “Picking each other up is really key, and just staying together and focusing on that next possession when we have to score and get a stop.
“We came out really strong in the beginning and that gave us a ton of confidence, and it was a key to the first half. But then the momentum in the second half switched back and forth.
“It’s tough, but we have trust in each other. We love each other so much on and off the court. I think that’s what helps us.”